08 July 2012

The Shirley Letters (Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe)

In my (now-completed) quest to actually read the awesome books I got for Christmas, I finally hit The Shirley Letters. It's possibly the most obscure tome in my library: a collection of 23 epistolary essays published in The Pioneer, California's first literary magazine, Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe's accounts of her experiences in gold mining towns in 1851 and '52. Clappe was an educated New England woman and aspiring writer who came to the wilds of California with her doctor husband, where she fell in love with the wild beauty of the Sacramento Valley and the make-do life of the homesteader. While I'm using her letters as invaluable primary source material for my Gold Rush-set romance (fallow though it may currently be), I think they're worth seeking out as a forgotten masterpiece of creative nonfiction, and a feminine perspective on a masculine time and place.

Though Clappe is a wonderful, witty writer, who casts her eye in turn on social life, mining techniques, and vivid portraits of natural settings, for my money her powers of description are never better (or funnier) than when she details her domestic environment. At first, she and her husband Fayette lodged in Rich Bar at the Empire--"the hotel of the place," which boasted the "dazzling splendor" of two or three glass windows and a second story, and a primary decorative motif of an "eternal crimson calico--which flushes the whole social life of the 'Golden State' with its everlasting red." The building itself, however, was little more than a rough wooden frame with walls and roof of canvas; she calls it "just such a piece of carpentering as a child two years old, gifted with the strength of a man, would produce, if it wanted to play at making grown-up houses." Yet she's fully aware that the Empire really is top-notch accommodations in comparison to the other residences in Rich Bar, many of which were hovels made of pine branches covered with old shirts.

Soon, though, they've moved to their own log cabin at Indian Bar, on the Feather River. This 400-square-foot edifice featured a fireplace of mud, stones, and sticks, with a mantlepiece of wood covered with flattened old tin cans. The floor is so uneven that "no article of furniture gifted with four legs pretends to stand upon but three at once, so that the chairs, tables, etc., remind you constantly of a dog with a sore foot." The only window is "yet guiltless of glass," her toilet table is "a trunk elevated upon two claret cases," their bookcase is a candle-box, the library consisting of "a Bible and prayer-book, Shakespeare, Spenser, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Lowell's Fable for Critics, Walton's Compleat Angler, and some Spanish books." And the walls? While they've escaped the trademark red calico, they are instead lined with
a gaudy chintz, which I consider a perfect marvel of calico printing. The artist seems to have exhausted himself on roses; from the largest cabbage, down to the tiniest Burgundy, he has arranged them in every possible variety of wreath, garland, bouquet, and single flower; they are of all stages of growth, from earliest bud-hood up to the ravishing beauty of the 'last rose of summer.' Nor has he confined himself to the colors usually worn by this lovely plant; but, with the daring of a great genius soaring above nature, worshiping the ideal rather than the real, he has painted them brown, purple, green, black, and blue.

And she loves it. That's what amazes me most about her writing (and that of other pioneer women I've read)--that she doesn't miss the relative civilization and comfort of the East Coast, that she embraces the hardships of her rustic surroundings with humor and delight. Here's another long quote for you, because I just can't say it better:
[M]y new home [is] a place where there are no newspapers, no churches, lectures, concerts, or theaters; no fresh books, no shopping, calling, nor gossiping little tea-drinkings; no parties, no balls, no picnics, no tableaux, no charades, no latest fashions, no daily mail (we have an express once a month), no promenades, no rides, nor drives; no vegetables but potatoes and onions, no milk, no eggs, no nothing? Now I expect to be very happy here. This strange, odd life fascinates me. . . . In good sooth I fancy that nature intended me for an Arab or some other Nomadic barbarian, and by mistake my soul got packed up in a Christianized set of bones and muscles. How I shall ever be able to content myself in a decent, proper, well-behaved house, where . . . every article of furniture, instead of being a make-shift, is its own useful and elegantly finished self, I am sure I do not know. However . . . [I] trust that when it is again my lot to live amid the refinements and luxuries of civilization, I shall endure them with becoming philosophy and fortitude.

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